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January 3, 2017

Eighth Circuit panel reverses district court findings of substantive due process problems with Minnesota's sex offender commitment program

As reported in this local article, a "federal appeals court in St. Louis has reversed a lower-court ruling that Minnesota's sex-offender treatment program is unconstitutional — a major victory for the Minnesota Department of Human Services and a decision that could delay long-awaited reforms to the state's system of indefinite detention for sex offenders."  Here is more about the ruling and its context:

In a decision Tuesday, a three-judge panel of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals found that a class of sex offenders who sued the state failed to prove that the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP) violated their due process rights under the U.S. Constitution. "We conclude that the class plaintiffs have failed to demonstrate that any of the identified actions of the state defendants or arguable shortcomings in the MSOP were egregious, malicious, or sadistic as is necessary to meet the conscience-shocking standard," the court ruled.

In response, the lead attorney for a class of offenders who sued the state said he is considering an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which must be filed within 90 days. "Justice was not done today," said Dan Gustafson, the attorney for the plaintiffs. "We're still considering what we are going to do but, as Governor Dayton said the other day, we are not going quietly into the night."

Minnesota confines more offenders per capita, and has the lowest release rate, among the 20 states that use civil commitment to confine sex offenders in treatment programs. Only 14 offenders have been conditionally discharged from the program in its more than 20-year history. Of those, seven are currently living in the community. Just one offender has been unconditionally discharged, and that did not occur until August.

In June 2015, federal Judge Donovan Frank in St. Paul, ruling in a lawsuit brought by a group of sex offenders, declared the program unconstitutional for confining offenders indefinitely, after they have already completed their prison terms, without a clear path toward release. The judge ordered state officials to conduct independent evaluations of the roughly 720 offenders confined at secure treatment centers in Moose Lake and St. Peter to determine if they still pose a public safety risk. He also ordered the state to develop less restrictive options for housing offenders in the community.

The unanimous Eighth Circuit panel ruling in this case is available at this link, and it gets started this way:

Class plaintiffs, civilly committed sex offenders, bring a facial and as applied challenge under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming their substantive due process rights have been violated by Minnesota’s Civil Commitment and Treatment Act and by the actions and practices of the managers of the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP).  The Minnesota state defendants in this action are managers of MSOP — Emily Johnson Piper, Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Services; Kevin Moser, MSOP Facilities Director at Moose Lake; Peter Puffer, MSOP Clinical Director; Nancy Johnston, MSOP Executive Director; Jannine Herbert, MSOP Executive Clinical Director; and Ann Zimmerman, MSOP Security Director (collectively “state defendants”).  After several months of litigation, including a six-week bench trial, the district court found for plaintiffs and entered an expansive injunctive order.  The district court applied incorrect standards of scrutiny when considering plaintiffs’ claims, thus we reverse the finding of substantive due process violations and vacate the injunctive relief order.  We remand to the district court for further proceedings to address the remaining claims.

January 3, 2017 at 02:35 PM | Permalink


Hmmmm. Let's see---evaluations are supposed to happen, but don't, and that's not egregious?

Posted by: federalist | Jan 3, 2017 2:43:34 PM

and the rational basis scrutiny analysis is, um, weak.

Posted by: federalist | Jan 3, 2017 3:17:16 PM

I take back everything that I have ever said about the federal judiciary, particularly the Supremes, being baboons in black pajamas. That is the ultimate insult to baboons and for that, I apologize. Baboons seem to understand simple declarative language much better than these educated trolls.

One does not need to pretend to understand law and legal reasoning, to realize the truly ridiculous mental gymnastics and self-deceit that these idiots had to mentally m-st-rb-te to deny the obvious. They are delusional!

And to think they steal their salary and pensions from the US public. The appeal will fail and confirm the extreme cowardice of the federal judiciary.

Posted by: albeed | Jan 3, 2017 3:23:14 PM

The issue was not whether evaluations are supposed to happen, but whether the statutory framework as to when they are supposed to happen was adequate. The trial court thought that these sexual sociopaths needed more frequent evaluations than the statute provides. (The statute only requires a formal reevaluation when the inmate requests a reduction in custody). The district court thought that process was inadequate.

Posted by: tmm | Jan 3, 2017 3:50:16 PM

What happens if civilly committed inmates at Minnesota's Civil Commitment Center finally rise up and say: Enough is enough! What would civilly committed inmates there now have to lose by having it out with corrections officers and staff? They are already serving de-facto life sentences under maximum security prison-like conditions. What's the worst that could happen to them if they assault or murder staff or guards--get a de jure life sentences under exactly the same prison-like conditions? You call that a deterrent to any inmate uprising at Moose Lake? Maybe they will join in the nation-wide prison strike that started at Alabama's Atmore Prison this last September.

Posted by: william r. delzell | Jan 4, 2017 8:18:57 AM

Gee, I always thought that the purpose of civil committment and sex offender treatment programs was so that they could get treatment, be rehabilitated and move on with their lives.
Why would anyone bother to participate in the program now knowing the likelyhood of rehabilitation and release is nil?

Posted by: kat | Jan 4, 2017 11:30:34 AM

I respect kat's sarcasm but the devil advocate position is that we are dealing with a situation where many (most?) people won't be totally "rehabilitated" given their particular condition (granting the problem of overclassification). So, we are left with a long term practice of oversight, few people leaving the program totally. If this is the case -- see the enemy combatant context -- special concerns do arise even if it is okay.

Posted by: Joe | Jan 4, 2017 1:08:48 PM

I see your point, some can never be rehabilitated and those are the people who should be on civil committment.
Not long ago we used to lock people up on civil committments in mental institutions and basically throw away the key, people who really didn't need to be locked up forever.
Fast forward, federal and state funding tanks, mental institutions close and all of a sudden we find that we can only because we have to, let these people out and that with appropriate meds, treatment, case management and social services many, but not all, did ok outside of an institution.
Each situation should be looked at on an individual basis. No psychiatrist wants to be "the one responsible" for letting someone go who may act out in a violent manner, but there's no way of knowing and history has shown that the funding isn't there to keep large populations of people locked away forever.

Posted by: kat | Jan 4, 2017 3:55:40 PM

If these people pose a danger, then charge them with something where you have evidence in a court of law with due process instead of resorting to the Stalinist practice of civil commitment. Civil commitment is a totalitarian practice that has no place in a country like the U.S. which always gives lip service to the principle of due process and the rule of law.

One final note: If I were a staff member or corrections officer assigned to the Moose Lake Civil Commitment center, I would not celebrate the recent decision upholding civil commitment. Instead, I would be monitoring the morale of the detainees to see if the outcome of this decision could lead to major radicalized unrest by detainees. Detainees may no longer have any incentive to behave themselves towards their jailors if they ever did in the first place. If one can keep a person who has served his or her sentence indefinitely under maximum security prison like conditions, what does that detainee have to lose anymore by physically lashing out at the powers that be that could result in assault, murder, or hostage taking against officers and staff. I would be scare to show my uniform to the detainees and maybe call in sick as several correctional officers did in Santa Fe just before that prison's 1980 riot. What happens if Moose Lake detainees decide to support the nationwide prison inmate strike that began last September to comemorate the 45th anniversary of the Attica uprising and to protest slave-like work conditions in many U.S. prisons? I advise Moose Lake's correction officers and staff to watch new developments carefully for their own safety.

Posted by: william r. delzell | Jan 5, 2017 5:59:48 AM

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